Sunday, 18 November 2018

Trying some beers in the Tri-City

For British people of my generation, who are perhaps not as educated as they should be, Gdansk doesn’t sound like an appealing destination. When I was growing up, Poland was under martial law and the name Gdansk still makes me think of meat shortages, Lech Wałęsa, shipyards and grey concrete.

If you also think that way, you‘d be very wrong.

This is Gdansk:

It helps to realise that Gdansk was formerly known as Danzig and one of the most important ports in the Hanseatic League of medieval Europe.

This is Ulica Piwna in Gdansk. In the past when the town was predominantly German, the street was called Jopengasse. Both names redolent with beery history, for Jopengasse is named after the legendary Danziger Jopenbier (or perhaps the beer is named after the street), whereas Piwna literally means Beer Street.

There are a few other beery addresses. As well as Jopengasse, Danzig in the 19th century also had a Mälzergasse, maltsters’ street. The street then called Hinter Adlers Brauhaus, “Behind Adler’s Brewery” is now called Browarna, brewery street and the one-time Hopfengasse is now Chmielna, both meaning Hop Lane.

The grand building at the end of the street is the old town arsenal. Of course, these days there is a bar in there selling New England IPA and milk stout. No, really, there is.

The other end of Piwna is even more impressive, as it takes you to St Mary’s Basilica, the largest brick church in Europe,

After visiting the Solidarity museum in the former Lenin Shipyard (where you can see Lech Wałęsa’s jumper) I do need a beer.

Happily, there is still beer brewed in Beer Street. Browar Piwna, which I suppose you would need to translate as “Beer St Brewery” rather than the decidedly redundant sounding “Beer Brewery” is a bit touristy, as you might expect. But the beer is good. Their Pils is as murky as the soupiest IPA, but tastes entirely different, with that fresh lagering-tank CO2 you find in good brewpub beer. Hops build to a substantial bitterness. If you gave this to me blind I’d call it some sort of Kellerbier rather than Pils, but whatever.

Gdansk and the neighbouring towns of Sopot and Gdynia make up a conurbation known locally as the Trójmiasto, Tri-city. Sopot is the smallest of the three but it has two brewpubs.

In Browar Miejski Sopot we have a very nice oatmeal stout (12º, 4.7%), very smooth and creamy with no rough edges with notes of liquorice and smoke. An “American Red” beer is straightforward, a little watery but not bad. The standout beer, though, is the Pils: fresh malt and just the right amount of diacetyl for me. Low, cask-like carbonation and lovely, perfumey hops with a fresh edge to them. Perhaps not bitter enough to be a true Pils but whatever it is, it’s a very nice beer.

A day drinking in Gdynia sees us start – I can’t remember exactly why – at Blues Club.

As everywhere else, the big brewers are attempting to capture a share of the speciality market. They are pretty keen on witbier and Zywiec Bialy is a very light, bland but drinkable specimen. Toasty malt, creamy mouthfeel, needs more coriander.

There is fancier beer in bottles in the fridge. The double IPA and Porter from Browar Zamkowy Cieszyn look interesting so we order those. They come in 50cl bottles and are 8.0% and 9.8% respectively, and it’s only lunchtime. Woops.

It is a nice enough bar and at least there is a Fun Guide.

The double IPA is surprisingly light in body with savoury, spicy aromas and a slightly odd meatiness. Needs more hops but the bitterness builds gradually. A fairly decent West Coast IPA actually. The porter was apparently so good there are no notes. We then have a further vanilla and chilli stout at 6.4%, made with a traditional (hmmmm) decoction mash, It’s very nice, sweetish with oaty creaminess, breakfast-cereal malt and a very subtle chilli burn – the vanilla is not apparent.

We need pizza before the next beer and fortunately there is a pizzeria right next door to our next stop. The pizza dough is yeasty and not salty enough, which is a shame because the toppings are outstanding. To go with it, Łomża Export is one of those Polish pale lagers: sweetish but with a prominent balancing bitterness. OK. For 9 PLN (about £2) more than OK.

Next door is the tap of the “craft” brewery AleBrowar. It looks like every other craft beer bar  everywhere, but with more Zs and Ws.

Lilt-flavoured grey meh
We start with a beer called “Be Like Mitch”. If more brewers were like Mitch, the world would be a better place. Fruity pineapple, clean bitterness, drinkable, not too extreme. “King of Hop” is excellent too: really good hop nose, intensely dank and bitter.

AleBrowar is perhaps best known for its IPA Rowing Jack, once called Poland’s best beer by Hector, who visits a lot (although the last time I spoke to him he’d since found a new favourite). I find it nice enough but not as outstanding as I’d been led to believe. The classical profile of caramel malt and resin is there, with a certain mintyness and a little diacetyl, so the end effect is a bit like drinking mint Werther’s Originals (is there even such a variety?).

Jesus Juice is their murky. It’s very unattractive pond water and the closest I’ve ever seen to a beer that was actually grey. The flavour is the usual Lilt with hops. Meh for this one.

A milk stout called “Sweet Cow” has a really weird smoke and mushrooms aroma and has to be swapped for a beer called “Roo Juice”. This has a really nice dank aroma with jasmine tea notes, dry and astringent. It is basically best bitter and one of the best on offer today.

At the end of my notes I have written that AleBrowar is the Polish equivalent of Sadler’s, but have no idea what I meant by that.

On to the next beer place, Morze Piwa Multitap, an oddly draughty place with the atmosphere of a theatre foyer.

Ziemia Obiecana Mini Dzordz, a “session New England IPA”, could be a nice glass of pineapple juice but is ruined by a strong, unpleasant flavour of burnt rubber. Przystanck Tiesi Kölsch also has a slight burnt rubber nose and a bit of marzipan, but otherwise is a surprisingly competent attempt at a Kölsch. We don’t stay here for another.

Our last stop before jumping back on the train is Beczka Chmielu, an empty beer bar where draught beers on offer are less fancy and perhaps that’s just as well. Zwiemyniec Pils is an OK lager but again lacking in hop flavour and aroma. But at least it has a head on it. Staropolski Porter Baltycki is 10.2% and full of liquorice flavour, nice and rather reminiscent of Courage Russian Stout.

PG4, Gdansk

The beer culture here has been gratifyingly good. “Craft” beer has been faster to make headway in Poland than in Germany, perhaps because there is more of a blank slate. Polish industrial pale lager is pretty grim, not quite as dull as British standard lager but notably worse than the big German brands. 

I was not expecting to find historic Polish beers such as Grodziskie or Jopenbier, at least not easily, and I didn’t. I did encounter an isolated bottle of Grodziskie, of all places, in the railway station shop in Sopot. At the moment, caught between the oceans of pale lager and IPA, the strong Polish porter is still the most distinctively Polish feature of the beer market here. I will look out for any of these whenever I see them.

But the revivalists are making progress. Our last stop is back in Gdansk at the relatively new brewpub PG4, right next to the railway station.

If AleBrowar is unabashedly American-influenced, PG4 is surprisingly German. I didn’t know it at the time, but the head brewer and the brew kit both come from Germany, which explains the beers they make here. It is a vast space over two floors plus a sunny terrace, and the beer is very nice. On the way to the toilets I count four 20HL conditioning tanks and five more of 10HL, from Caspary. There may be more.

The Pils has poor head formation and retention but is otherwise very nice: lemony menthol hops on the nose, full in body, bitter and sweet at the same time. Well above average.

There is even a Rauchbier which of course I have to try. Massive woody smoked-ham aroma, though the body is a little on the thin and empty side. While it is clearly modelled on Schlenkerla Märzen, it also has a pleasant treacley note that also crops up in those 10% Polish porters. “Makes me sad we’re not in Bamberg,” says J. Like-for-like, I think Schlenkerla is better, but I might swap an old bottle of it for a fresh glass of this.

The one beer with a Polish name is Starogdanskie (Old Gdansk) which is a wonderfully fresh and clean malty beer. Very sticky, in a good way, with toasty notes and a hazy orange colour.

Since our visit I have heard the brewer here is attempting to revive Jopenbier, so I am very curious about that.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Charity festival showcases Glasgow’s secret breweries

Tonight (Friday) sees the start of Beer Makes Glasgow, the festival which brewers and retailers set up last year to replace the collapsed Great Scottish Beer Celebration. It was such a success that it’s returning for a second year.

One of the peculiar features of Glasgow’s beer scene is the bottleneck of outlets, which means new and small breweries have very limited routes to market in the city. In the last few years a number of new wave producers – Up Front, Lawman, Out of Town, Gallus, Dead End Brew Machine, Ride – have sprung up, joined in 2017 by very slightly larger outfits Merchant City, Late Night Hype and the newest of all, Overtone. What all have in common is that hardly any pubs in the city will sell their beer, so if you want to drink it, it’s a matter of seeking out packaged product or checking the tiny number of draught outlets which occasionally feature one of them. So festivals such as this are a valuable shop window for some of (what I am these days calling) Glasgow’s secret breweries.

Beer Makes Glasgow is worth supporting too as it’s the city’s most socially conscious festival, all surplus going to Drumchapel Food Bank.

This year’s event takes place at Drygate, a decision taken early on to enable more to be donated. That was just as well, as last year’s venue, the former Beresford Hotel, is still closed following the huge fire that gutted the Glasgow School of Art just around the corner.

Film-maker Guy Thomson produced this promotional film based on last year’s festival, which lets the brewers involved explain their own motivation for being involved:

Tickets are here.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

A note on beer skimmers

Many years before I ever visited the Netherlands I learned through reading that it was commonplace for bar staff there to pour Pils with a large head of foam, which was then decapitated with a large bladed implement resembling a palette knife.

I had thought this a peculiarly Dutch practice, but in recent years both Stella Artois and its competitor Heverlee have made a big thing of the ritual, emphasising a smooth, stylish skim with the knife as an essential part of the serve.

The last time I was in Belgium I observed bar staff using skimmers on the draught Leffe et al too. To me it gives a glass of beer an unnaturally smooth, plastic appearance.

I am not sure that I approve of it being used for beers beyond Pils, certainly not for the rocky head that forms on Belgian brown and abbey-type beers. In Germany it would never be used for Pils either, since in that country a tall crown of foam extending high above the rim of the glass is seen as a sign of a well-poured beer (although who knows whether that may change as corporations such as Heineken gain influence).

I was quite surprised to discover that such skimmers – “beer combs” in American English – were also used in the United States until about the 1950s, and when I tweeted about the subject my colleague Allan McLean mentioned that he remembered them being used in Edinburgh, presumably for cask beer.

In the US the story goes that these things fell out of use due to hygiene concerns, as the comb was left in a jug of stagnant water between uses.

A patent applied for in 1941 seems to confirm this theory:
Heretofore in the art where beer has been served over a bar it has been customary for the bartender to use a beer comb to scoop off the excess top foam of a glass or stein of beer. The bartender by custom then places the beer comb in a glass of stationary water until he needs to use the beer comb again for another service. It is apparent that where a glass is used that the water is stationary and in a comparatively short time becomes stale and mixed with some of the beer leavings which have been introduced into the glass from time to time. It is obvious that very soon after the glass has first been used that the water will be so sour and distasteful that it will not properly clean the beer comb but will on the other hand leave the beer comb in such a condition that when the comb is next used to scoop out the top of a beer glass that the comb will leave stale drippings on top of the latest glass of beer to the distaste of a patron. [Source]
I doubt the rather cumbersome-looking contraption which was intended to solve this problem was ever going to take off (even if it did also promise to prevent the unauthorised removal of the skimmer by a “frolicsome customer”). Perhaps people instead just got used to allowing a natural head of foam to form, which I have to say is also my preferred option.